While most other kids their age were goofing off, teenage brothers Ariel and Ron Shlien, then 15 and 14, respectively, were touring Montreal, making science presentations to children and their families, investing money to grow their venture and building a business.
The Shliens officially founded The Mad Science Group Inc. in 1985, nearly 10 years after they first offered science demonstrations to children at Montreal-area camps and YMCAs. Today their company has franchises in 18 countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan, teaching kids about every aspect of science from a wellspring of 2,000 hours of content through shows and activities. For their programs that focus more on entertainment than education, Mad Science also operates a production company and has partnered with Scholastic Books to create a book series.
Franchise Zone spoke with Ariel, 32, president and CEO, and Ron, 30, executive vice president, about creating and growing their company, and what factors age and family have played in their success.
Franchise Zone: Where did the idea come from?
Ariel Shlien: We were always interested in cool, fun, entertaining aspects of science. When we were about 12 or 13, we invested our money in a laser, built a laser light show and rented it out to disc jockeys. We started doing activities for kids in summer camps and at the local [YMCA], and word of mouth just spread. We started realizing there was an opportunity here and a market to go after.
Ron Shlien: We also took a very visual approach to the way we delivered our program, so when we did a program at camp or a Y, we took the laser apart and filled a room with theatrical smoke, really trying to get kids engaged. The first program we did at the Y was with four or five children; by the time we finished the program, our class was bursting at the seams. Children and adults walking by were so intrigued that they stayed to watch. After those first classes, we'd have a line going down the block where we'd have 100, 150 kids on a waiting list for a program with a maximum of 20 attendees available, so it took off very, very quickly.
Did you experience any challenges starting this business due to your age?
AS: Absolutely. Initially, people didn't take us very seriously when they realized how young we were. We had to do a lot of things over the phone. Fortunately, we sounded older than we were. Sometimes, when we had to go to our initial customers and pick up checks, we actually pretended we were couriers picking up these checks for our parents.
When we started franchising, however, we had a solid track record, so it wasn't nearly as difficult. We were young, but we were presenting the Mad Science opportunity, which spoke for itself. We had developed the system quite extensively, so when people came in, although everyone knew it was a [new] business and the founders were young, franchisees found their expectations were exceeded.
When you started this business at such a young age, how did it work? When did you find the time?
AS: Again, the business really had two distinct stages to it: The first stage was in our basement, when we were in school full time, and for 10 years, this was a part-time thing for us. We would work on the business as a break from our studying. We never really viewed it as work. We were having so much fun and enjoying ourselves, and certainly the response we were getting from the kids and parents was extraordinary.
After graduating [from college], we actually had full-time people working in the business, yet I was working at another full-time job, because I never really took the business that seriously. After about a year and a half, seeing the business grow and really take on a life of its own, I realized the amazing opportunity here, and I didn't want to look back the rest of my life and say, "I wish." So Ron and I decided we were going to make a go of it.
How did you decide to do this as a full-time business?
AS: It kept growing and growing over a 10-year period in our basement. Families that had moved away would still call us, from Toronto, from Florida, from New York, and we realized there might be an opportunity beyond just Montreal. So we built it, and it just kept growing, and as we got older and as we brought in the scope of our vision for the company, the company kept growing to fill that vision.
We realized one day there was a huge opportunity here and that kids are kids-they like Mad Science all over the place. Something that drove home the point was when Ron went to Florida and helped us get onto cruise ships. There were kids from 55 different countries on the various ships, and some of them didn't speak English, but all of them loved Mad Science. So the question in our mind was then, what's the best way to get Mad Science in the hands of kids around the world? That's how we came up with franchising.
Did you study business in school?
RS: Both of us went to the McGill Business School here in Montreal. For our science content, we were able to get a pretty great group of people here in our research and development group-scientists, teachers and educators-who come up with our content.
AS: Interestingly enough, we initially created the business plan for Mad Science from a franchise perspective when we were in business school at McGill.
RS: It was part of our final project, our thesis.
When you went to business school, was it specifically to work on this business?
AS: It just made sense to do our projects on Mad Science, which would always broaden our vision for it. When we graduated, we realized we had a wonderful opportunity, and it kind of happened from there.
RS: A lot of the other students were more theoretical-they were trying to learn about business so they could get a better job or start something in the future. We were already operating a business, so everything was very practical for us. The lessons we learned, like marketing and PR, were applied immediately. For us, it was very, very helpful.
Did going to business school change any of the ideas you had for the company or make you rethink goals?
AS: I'm not sure if it helped us change goals. It helped us [develop] practical solutions and prevent some of the mistakes you learn about in the texts. If we were doing a case study on a different company, we understood the problems they'd encounter and make sure to avoid those types of problems.
What kind of reaction did you get from your business professors? Did they think Mad Science was a good idea?
AS: We're still in touch with our professor of entrepreneurial studies. He has been a mentor to us for years and was one of the original inspirations for turning Mad Science into a franchising system and growing and developing this with worldwide potential. He just thought this was the most incredible idea he'd ever heard and saw this going worldwide. He was very encouraging; in fact, many of our professors were incredibly encouraging.
The Appeal of the Business
Why do you think your business is so popular?
AS: Because it's fun, because kids love doing what they're doing, because the presenters really enjoy what they're doing. We take science and leverage it to spark imagination. You don't have to love science to love Mad Science-you just have to love life around you. Everything is presented in a fun, hands-on way that really gets kids going, so they end up learning as a by-product.
RS: I would boil it down to two things. We are successful, number one, because we've got a fabulous system that just hits the nail on the head with what the consumer wants in this market. All the exciting, engaging ways of doing it are wrapped into the Mad Science system, and it has succeeded because we've provided a way for franchisees just to plug into that.
The other reason it's been very successful is because, unlike many franchisors in the kid's space, our business isn't just about franchisees going in to do activities-it's about building a brand, and we have been incredibly focused on building a national brand that is more than just a collection of franchisees doing activities. We did an exclusive deal with Scholastic, where they've created a series of 12 Mad Science books with toys and workbooks, and they've launched that to their 25 million kid channel. It's done so well this year-more than 100,000 kids are enrolled-that they decided to expand the program to launch it at 10,000 retail stores around the world. The touring, traveling shows that we've created with Mad Science productions going to various cities get a tremendous amount of local coverage.
AS: Incidentally, these are large-scale theatrical venues. Where Mad Science is about reaching groups of kids, classrooms of kids, or, in some cases, even schools of kids, Mad Science Productions reaches large numbers of children at fixed facilities or through traveling road shows. We've launched an enormous show at the Kennedy Space Center-3-D stereoscopic shows where children are learning about space and Mars through our production that has animation and live actors interacting with the audience.
RS: Mad Science is successful due to a very carefully created franchise system that franchisees can plug into, plus our incredible efforts on a corporate level to build the Mad Science brand to the point where it becomes a recognizable household name for families with children, elementary school-aged children. With those two things happening at the same time, it's a way of building brand recognition and also supporting the franchise system.
The next step for us is to extend those two main success factors for Mad Science. And really the biggest opportunity right now is building a worldwide brand for kids. We're in discussions right now to create a Mad Science TV show with all the various merchandise that comes out of that, like toys and clothes and CD ROMs, interactive games and videos and all that kind of thing. That's the next step for Mad Science, to really build the brand to the point where the activities of the franchisees, the activities of Mad Science Productions and the national TV show all connect together to one very powerful kid's brand.
Do the TV show and the live production create any competition with your franchisees?
RS: No. We actually work our franchisees into everything we do, so when our production company goes in to do a production in a local market, our franchisees embrace that. It's at a much larger level than our franchisees can do on their own, and we involve our franchisees in the actual activities, so they generate a lot of business out of that.
AS: In fact, everything we do focuses around our crown jewel, and that's our franchise channel. When we have a production company that goes into a local town, the hundreds of thousands of dollars that are often spent to promote those productions are of huge benefit to our franchisees.
RS: They're getting hundreds of thousands of dollars of free advertising. In fact, when the productions go into these cities, in most cases, there's local support from our franchisees in dealing with the often hundreds of thousands of kids who are becoming brand aware.
AS: In essence, we turn all these kids on to Mad Science and then pass them right to our local franchisees who can capture them and then get the business on an ongoing basis, on a smaller scale.
What do you want kids who go through Mad Science to get from your company's presentations?
AS: There's really one guiding principle that flows through every single thing we do, and that is sparking the imagination of children. That's really what Mad Science is all about. It's a business, it's a franchise, it's successful, it's making money, it provides wonderful stability and growth for our franchisees. There are many businesses that will do that for you, but beyond all of that, it's the passion of making a difference in children's lives, and we really achieve that in the most extraordinary way.
The Mad Science Group Inc.
3400 Jean Talon St. W, 101
Montreal, Quebec H3R2E8